This post has spoilers, if you couldn’t tell. If you couldn’t tell, well, this post has spoilers.
Is that enough warning? It’ll have to be.
Anyways, if you haven’t already read my thoughts on The Last of Us Part II, you should, because I talked about how I feel about the game as an overall package. Here I want to discuss the parts of the plot and character development that fall into spoiler territory because there’s quite a bit that I feel needs to be unpacked, and there’s so much about this game that needs to be held back from being blurted out for it to have any sense of impact at all.
That said, if you’ve already played the game, or you just don’t care to play it, you’re safe to read on.
Two Things First
Thinking back about my experience, there are a couple things that stand out to me.
First, that The Last of Us Part II (which again will be truncated to TLoU2) is far too long (much like its name). It hits many points where I felt the game was coming to a close, only to find out that there’s just one more thing that I need to do. Then another thing, and another, and another… The only other game I’ve played that did this was Red Dead Redemption II, which took a similar approach to extending the experience further by adding random obstacles and needless padding. The difference here is that RDR2 is an open-world game, so at the very least it’s necessary to have the characters travel a long distance to get to the next objective. One could argue that the world was just too large, but that’s a different story altogether.
Instead, what makes TLoU2 a plodding mess is that you’re stuck with getting your character to every goal on foot, as if Naughty Dog wanted to hammer the player with reminders that getting around the world is dangerous. Personally, all this ever makes me think is that the developer doesn’t respect my time, especially when little to no character development is taking place during these times. The dead air is even more evident in the times where Ellie or Abby is travelling alone, which just tells me that the only reason those sections exist is to pad in some gameplay.
Topping things off is the fact that the game hits multiple points where it should end, and just doesn’t. The most egregious of those times is when Ellie goes back to Wyoming with Dina after being confronted by Abby in the theater, who promptly beats Ellie to a pulp. Everything cuts to Ellie and Dina living the life they dreamed of on a farm in the wilderness away from the rest of Jackson City, and Ellie has her flashbacks to Joel suffering. Tommy comes by the house, which is really weird considering that Naughty Dog sure wanted to make it look like he was executed by Abby, who seems to have shot him in the back of the head.
How Tommy survived, I don’t know. Jennifer mentioned that it could’ve been a glancing wound, so I won’t pick that hill to die on. Still, he provides some convenient information to Ellie that he knows where Abby is based on something he heard from people passing through town. So despite telling him no, and knowing that Dina wouldn’t approve, Ellie decides that it’s worth being a piece of shit and destroying her relationship to track down Abby, who showed mercy on her a second time.
And yes, I called Ellie a piece of shit, because she is. She abandons her partner and her child to continue seeking revenge for something that was basically finished. Abby on the other hand had multiple opportunities to snuff Ellie out, and didn’t. Then after all was said and done, Ellie not only failed to kill Abby a second time, but Abby again spares her.
This brings me to my second thought,
that Ellie is a huge piece of shit that Abby is the character the sequel actually deserved, not Ellie. Abby grows as a character, going from someone whose sole vow is revenge at the expense of everything else, to someone that rejects the lifestyle she found herself in and does everything she can to take those who she cares for to escape it. Not just her friends either, but people she just met. In this case, she went out of her way to save two Seraphites who saved her own life, and after failing to protect Yara from a WLF invasion force, she still takes it upon herself to protect Lev at all costs.
You can criticize the rushed nature of Abby’s relationship with Lev and Yara, but I felt more for that trio and the WLF crew responsible for Joel’s death, than I did for Ellie. That’s coming from someone who loved Joel, despite the monstrous things he did. I cared about his character because of what he did for Ellie, and how he regained what soul he had left, even as misguided as his actions were. However, he still deserved the fate he met for the things he did; for not only dooming humanity’s chances to combat the fungal plague but also for killing Abby’s father.
I went into the game knowing that Joel was going to die the moment he told her that he would teach Ellie how to play the guitar in the morning. I was wrong about when he would die, but I was right that he would for his actions. I knew that it would be at the hands of someone affiliated with the Fireflies as well… It’s not like it was hard to predict.
Rooting For The “Bad Guys”
Of course, one place where I differ from other critics is that I loved the diversion to playing as Abby. The change to playing as her and experiencing the same course of events from her perspective confirmed my feelings that Ellie was on a pointless crusade, but I fully expected Ellie to change course with a realization of some kind, like her realizing that Joel killed Abby’s father. Rather, everything after cutting to Abby just fortified the case that she’s the true protagonist of TLoU2, rather than Ellie.
The humanization of the other side of the fight, along with showing the divide between the WLF and Firefly converts, just demonstrates that Abby and many of her friends were the good guys all along. What happened to Joel was barbaric, but I stand by that assessment.
If there’s anything that I feel Naughty Dog did a good job with, it’s that they definitely changed my outlook of the WLF members with the addition of the cut to the other side. It was certainly easier for me to accept that Ellie’s misguided adventure was almost completely unjustified once it became obvious that Joel’s death was a personal goal, not an organizational one.
Undermining Their Own “Message”
Where they steered directly into glorifying gratuitous violence was through the insistence that Ellie tracks Abby to Santa Barbara. The writers seem to have really wanted to drive home that violence is bad and that you should feel bad for killing people in the game, but if that were the case, they did a remarkably poor job.
The brutal and visceral nature of the killing in TLoU2 completely undermines any poignancy that could’ve been conveyed to the player because they made the combat comically satisfying. The blood, gore, and spectacle of the combat doesn’t lend itself to showing the player that Ellie’s conquests are meant to be seen as horrific any more than you could say the same about the gameplay in Postal, Manhunt, or Hatred. Like in those games, the player is rewarded for brutality.
For instance, shooting an enemy in the head or blowing them up shows all the carnage you would expect, but you’re rewarded with a quick kill. Stealth-killing enemies makes clearing areas much more manageable, and killing everyone in sight means you get to loot everything without resistance. The developers want you to feel bad for killing dogs in the game, but your first encounter with them in combat is after a tooltip explaining how much of a pain in the ass they’re going to be.
All of this calls to mind the common complaint against Naughty Dog’s games suffering from “ludonarrative dissonance”. I thought that it was blown way out of proportion considering how often it was associated with their Uncharted series, but now I’m starting to think that Naughty Dog doesn’t know how to tell a story where they want to portray violence as bad without making the game about grotesque gratification of killing.
Wrapping Up My Rant
Here’s where Naughty Dog really showed their contempt for the player, and completely undermines any sense of meaning they tried to build. In the hospital, Ellie finds and confronts one of the WLF doctors, Nora. After a short chase, she confronts Nora who is cornered in front of a large hole leading to a lower floor filled with cordyceps spores, as WLF troops close in behind Ellie. Facing death or capture, Ellie throws herself into the lower floors with Nora in tow, essentially sentencing Nora to the worst death possible.
The next section of gameplay involves again chasing Nora through the lower areas, and once trapping her once again, Ellie then takes to attempting to extract information about Abby’s location. She then threatens to torture Nora, with the promise of making her death quick in lieu of allowing her to just succumb to infection, but then decides that the best way to get what she needs is to beat Nora senseless with a pipe.
Putting the fact that torture isn’t an effective means of information extraction aside (even though games, movies, and TV shows keep asserting otherwise), what would be a distressing moment to simply watch unfold is something Naughty Dog forces you to participate in. This is the same developer that has tried to make the case that Ellie’s path is a dangerous one wrought with the deaths of people who have lives just as meaningful as her own, yet when the player comes to this section of the game, it wasn’t enough for the player to merely see it, they’re forced to move the scene forward.
That’s right. Naughty Dog seemed to make it clear that you should feel bad for all the death you deal throughout the game, but then they won’t let you move on without pressing square to extract information. Many people mocked Call of Duty Advanced Warfare for the “Press F to Pay Respects” moment, but this is infinitely more insulting.
This is perhaps the one moment of the game that should convince anyone that Naughty Dog hasn’t been honest about the way they have portrayed the story; that it’s some grand narrative about the futility of violence and vengeance. With the focus on Ellie as a protagonist seeking “justice” for the death of Joel, The Last of Us Part II is no better than any other videogame equivalent of murder porn; a glorification of violence.
See, I can continue writing when I know I should’ve ended it sooner too.
That conclusion came across much more strongly worded than I originally intended, but I stand by what I’ve said. I’m glad I played The Last of Us Part II, but I can’t help but feel like the air around the game is filled with overblown praise given that so much emphasis is placed on revenge story that just doesn’t end when it should, and any redeemable characters are either killed or fade out.
It’s like the writers watched the Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding episode and thought “This is how you make people feel something. Let’s make a sequel to one of our best games about the evolving relationship between a grieving father and a girl who’s seeking connection in her life, which focuses on the complicated redemption of Joel. We can make our new game a ludicrously violent death-fest based on the premise that Ellie wants revenge, and attempt to make the player feel bad about the actions we force them to take.”
I guess what I’m saying is that the writers at Naughty Dog behind the story of The Last of Us Part II are pretentious gas-bags if they think they wrote something meaningful. There’s nothing wrong with creating an entertaining yet uncomfortable game to play, but don’t try to make it something it’s not.